Elegant industrial scores the enigmatic solo debut of the incomparable Jehnny Beth
When a band finally cracks that tipping point and delivers an album that’s on the tip of the tongues of critics and fans alike, getting heaped with praise, you expect the next record to be inevitable. Fans thirst for more material and the label is dying to be able to give it to them. Usually, so much so that it’s rushed and the output is premature and lacking the spark and depth of their hit record. After 2016’s monumental Adore Life, post-punk powerhouse Savages pulled a Dave Chappelle, disappearing after two wildly successful collections. The album flooded the yearly top 10 lists. Their enrapturing live show could run the gamut from pin-drop serenity to Mars Volta-esque eruptions, with Beth stepping over elated crowds to belt out her voracious Euro-fury. Her tiny frame hoisted above the pit like a conquering hero. That third album should have solidified their place in the halls of moody art-rock. Beth, however, had other plans.
It was an event that shook the foundations of the music world that inspired her to pursue a solo record, the death of David Bowie. In a recent New York Times article, Beth explains how she was awoken in the middle of the night with the news, then she and longtime partner/collaborator Johnny Hostile stayed up till morning listening to Blackstar, Bowie’s final studio record. “Blackstar had a huge influence in terms of reminding me how an album can be a testament, an imprint of your vision of the world, and it will last longer than you will,” she said. This pushed Beth to work on the record “as if I was going to die.”
The record that was born of this drive has definite echoes of Bowie’s gorgeous swan song throughout. It also shows a great deal of influence from Bowie progeny Nine Inch Nails thanks to Beth’s collaboration with NIN #2 man, Atticus Ross. Beth was even set to open for Trent and co. on the ill-fated 2020 theatre tour that would never come to be. Fuck you, COVID.
TO LOVE IS TO LIVE
To Love Is to Live showcases the aggressively broad spectrum by which Jehnny Beth lives her life. She is candidly bisexual and fluently embraces a character of androgyny (another shared trait of her late hero). Her jet-black, slicked-back hair, boxer’s physique, and simple t-shirt and jeans aesthetic is juxtaposed by her endearingly blended French-English accent delivered through her slight, red-lipsticked, mischievous smile. This personal openness manifests in the work with a collection of songs that not only varies greatly dynamically but in style as well. Bombastic, ferocious blasts of sophisticated, 21st century industrial are interjected with ballet-like piano numbers and throwbacks to wistful cabaret lamentations.
Beth took the immutable presence amid the chaos that she crafted with her previous post-punk project and gave it diverse new voices with the help of Ross, Hostile, producer extraordinaire Flood (NIN, PJ Harvey, Depeche Mode, Nick Cave, Daniel Lanois, U2 etc. etc.), Idles’ Joe Talbot, Nick Chuba, and string arranger/performer Oli Kraus. This all-star team of dark soundscape artists gave Beth the depth she was so obviously reaching for with her work with Savages. It’s her innate theatricality and tempestuous personality that lifted the group from a great, tight little post-punk act into the tastemakers they became.
The uneasy swaying strings of a Hitchcock soundtrack or a Bond film intro underpin the elegant opener ‘I Am’ as a pitch-lowered voice declares it’s Cartesian presence. Beth describes the unbridled passion bubbling under her skin, a theme echoed throughout the piece. “And burning, I’m burning/Your safe, is my danger/We will sin together/And I’m burning inside/Oh I’m burning, I’m burning”. Hard thumping minimalism and swirling siren production propels ‘Innocence’ as she looks at the concept of purity after coming out the other side. A love/hate examination of a life lived in the dark heart of the city.
The second single ‘Flower’ is seamlessly birthed from the end of ‘Innocence’. Beth sets her sights on a woman and grapples with her unattainable beauty. The verse’s stark simplicity paired with Beth’s sultry whisper recalls the slow-burning anticipatory trip-hop of progenitors Portishead. Her wanton desires erupt in the chorus with her fiery francophone yelp.
A well-placed poetic reading by Peaky Blinder’s actor Cillian Murphy gives us a contextual step back to inform of the manic world in which Beth has written her very personal tale of craving. The stanzas of ‘A Place Above’ contemplate this uncanny era of narcissism, greed, and deception in which we live. To follow, Beth blasts the doors wide open with the album’s first single ‘I’m The Man’, a song which has also found a home on the soundtrack to Murphy’s period crime drama.
The tornado of cacophony she raises along with Ross is reminiscent of the whirlpool frenzy of Savages’ ultimate track ‘The Answer’. Jehnny Beth’s unrepentant assertions of dominance are made all the more powerful and profound by the sudden asides of gracefully longing piano, then hard cut back to the shitstorm. ‘I’m The Man’ would fit seamlessly on a Nine Inch Nails record and it feels all but inevitable that Jehnny and Trent will collaborate at some point.
Side B dives further into the surreal with more of these segues of transportive piano, sweeping you briefly away to another time; mid-eighteenth century Palais de Versailles, jazz-filled cobblestone streets of Montmartre in the 1920s, a quiet country home in Poitiers. ‘The Rooms’ initial lazy, smoke-filled club vibe with it’s intercut sax gives way to the familiar vibe of a bedroom with sensuous, steady piano. The latest single ‘Heroine’ has the propulsive force of a crotch rocket weaving in and out of traffic in a long tunnel through the Alps. Beth looks at stepping into the skin of the idyllic creation she has always envisioned. ‘How Could You’ brings more brazen buzzsaw energy to the mix with the help of Idles frontman Joe Talbot. The two trade verses, tossing barbs and raging at the night.
Beth’s many enigmatic intensities are tempered in the beautiful penultimate track ‘French Countryside’. In the most obvious link to Bowie’s Blackstar, she wistfully recalls her childhood surroundings “If I ever see the French countryside again/On my way out of this aeroplane/I will ask you to take me back/To that place by the river/Where we can be ourselves” echoing not only Bowie’s lines “If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to…” but the timing and chronologically transcendent chords as well. ‘French Countryside’ puts into focus the question that tempts all who clamor for the heart of the beast in their youthful quest for excess: When is it time to leave behind the madness and rediscover peace?
She closes the record with a track that is as broad as the album itself. At first brooding and surreal, descending into hard-edged madness, returning with ominous strings and luxurious piano, and concluding with Beth revisiting her opening manifesto in poetic fashion. To Love Is to Live is an unapologetic force of nature. A bold statement from a woman who has lived steadfastly in the public eye. Working on projects as it suits her creative place in life and refusing to be boxed in. It’s clear now why she needed to put Savages down for a while, she needed to use different tools to create this body of work. A vanity project? Perhaps…but a damn good one.
“TO LOVE IS TO LIVE” is available in a variety of formats and merch bundles at Jehnny Beth’s official store.